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Using Social Media to Harness Innovation

Author: Jason Breed
Published Date: 17 August 2011

It's difficult to recall, but there was a time in the not too distant past when communication moved at a near-glacial pace. Meetings were held, thoughts were gathered, written (typed), and sent off in an envelope. Days or weeks passed and a response was returned. It took time to develop ideas. Time to test, refine, pilot, and promote innovation. Lots of time. Because the communication infrastructure didn't facilitate speed, transparency, or collaboration.

Enter the Digital Age. Freed from the shackles of paper and post, transferring information became instant, transparent, and global. The zeitgeist of the consumer, once accessible only through focus groups or research, was laid bare by YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a host of other online meeting places. Even though communication has changed radically, many companies have failed to harness the unfettered flow of insight now available. And innovation—a driving force in this open, fast-paced marketplace—remains siloed within R&D.

Instead, the innovation process should be hardwired into social media and digital communication channels, allowing companies to leverage employee, consumer, and third-party networks and the insights held within each. It's something we call enterprise social innovation. By establishing an open environment that welcomes ideas, collaboration, contribution, and evaluation, firms can engage their key stakeholders as active participants in the innovation process—expanding the range of possible ideas, reducing development lead times, and maximizing market impact. In short, enterprise social innovation can help deliver scale and predictability to the innovation process.

Enterprise social innovation at Cisco
How does enterprise social innovation work? Let's look at traditional methods first. A dedicated team (usually comprised of a dozen or less people) conducts market assessments, spotting opportunities for innovation. They then cycle through iterations of "safe" strategies to pursue—all without external (i.e. customer) input.

Through enterprise social innovation, the process gets turned on its head. Take networking giant Cisco as a case in point. Their annual I-Prize initiative invites external contributors from across the globe to go online to submit big-bet business concepts that Cisco can develop further. In the 2010 competition 2,900 people from 156 countries entered 824 innovations. Through a series of evaluations, ratings, and review, 32 semi-finalists were selected, with nine teams reaching the final phase. The ultimate result: Two separate billion-dollar ideas were generated and funded and winning submissions received a $250,000 prize in return.

Instead of having one team working on a single innovation effort, Cisco gathered an army of people working on hundreds of projects. The program is managed by Cisco's own internal people who ensure that processes are run in a disciplined and predictable fashion. Considering the end yield, the $500,000 investment (for the two winning prizes) is extremely cost-efficient, as well.

What it takes
Enterprise social innovation broadens the scope of idea generation and transforms traditional approaches from one-off ideation to a portfolio of ideas handled like any other continuous business process. This makes it possible to scale the innovation process without scaling up a team in the corporate center (with all the associated resource commitments of doing so). By taking advantage of the company's extensive networks, providing open channels of communication, and stimulating the innovation engine (multiple brains working together real-time to create and qualify), it improves the pipeline of ideas coming through the innovation portfolio and allows for increases in volume and predictability.

So, what does it take to move from a one-off, project-based linear approach to the collaborative, iterative enterprise social innovation?

  • First and foremost, decentralize contributions Your best ideas may come from where you least expect it. Enable it. Innovation shouldn't be confined to the R&D department. It needs to be accessible throughout an organization. The UK Department for Work and Pensions created a platform called Idea Street that allows its 120,000 staffers to contribute innovations through a gaming environment. In a matter of months 1,000 ideas were harvested and 63 are under development.
  • Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate Enterprise social innovation is all about dramatically widening spheres of influence and taking collaboration to the next level. Dell has its Social Media and Community Teams, otherwise known as SMaC. Their goal: embed social media into the fabric of the company and beyond. Although their communication platform is centralized, engagement is distributed across a constellation of stakeholders from blogs to wikis to networking groups.
  • Feed the feedback loop Social media isn't just a great source of ideation; it can also serve as an incubator for product refinement or service testing. Before the money is spent on full-blown launches, enterprise social innovation can be used to leverage stakeholder groups to optimize the solution before it sees the store shelf. Best of all: feedback loops are often fast and happen at scale.
  • Stoke the fires Consumers today want everything yesterday. Companies are spurred to react quickly to meet their needs. As a result, innovations are knocked off and commoditized before they get out of the early adopter stage. This highlights the need to treat innovation as a continual business process with the required funding, senior executive sponsorship, shared incentives, and reward recognition. Enterprise social innovation helps companies transition away from an innovation department, towards an innovation culture.

Harnessing the power of social
Success today favors those companies that achieve innovation at scale. One-off, centralized efforts with questionable payoffs are seen as too risky in an environment where a diversity of offerings and the ability to seize new market opportunities at speed and with scale separates winners from losers. Through enterprise social innovation, companies can benefit from a greater pool of ideas—ones that are aligned more closely with the wants and needs of the end consumer—and a broader web of networks that gives instant access to all the innovation process enablers. The end game: A continuous, predictable flow of successful innovations.

This item was originally published by 1to1 Media